Fight Like A Girl
By Kwok Siew Loong
The arm poking out of the giant bushes about 50 metres ahead of her reminded Su of the television cartoons she had watched in kindergarten and primary school, all talking ducks, dancing bears and enchanted forests. She half-expected the clump of vegetation to grow a pair of legs, and run out of the park into the night. She certainly did not think the arm would grab hold of the small woman walking alongside the hedge, and yank her into the shrubbery.
"Did you see that?" Su asked, tugging urgently on the sleeve of her boyfriend's T-shirt, the horrific implications only now dawning upon her. One clean jerk, and the woman had been swallowed whole.
"I'm not sure what I saw," Jian Xiong replied, their bodies untangling. The young couple liked to sit in the park near her HDB housing estate whenever he walked her home after late-night studying in their junior college library. They preferred the more secluded sections, of course, away from the glare of streetlamps, the distracting drone of traffic. Their favourite bench was tucked away in an alcove, barely visible from the walkway even during the day, but especially at night.
She waited for him to say more, but he just sat there, biting his lip, his face unsettled. They had been dating for a year, but had been friends since secondary school—and this was not the Jian Xiong she knew. He was the captain of the college hockey team, used to taking charge and barking orders at the other players.
"Well," she finally said, hands shaking in frustration, "let's go check!"
"No," he said, startled into attention. "We call the police, and let them handle this."
"Are you crazy? We just sit here doing nothing?"
"We're calling the police, that's doing something," he replied, bending over to rifle through his gym bag for his phone.
"You call the police. I'm not going to let anything happen to this poor woman dragged into the bushes."
"What if something happens to you?" he fired back, spinning round angrily. He was a beast on the hockey pitch, but this was the first time he had ever raised his voice at her.
"Then, you go!"
"No," he said, voice low and commanding—and looking everywhere, she noticed, except in her direction.
"We wait for the police, it's the logical thing to do," he continued, and returned to his gym bag as if the light grey carrier held the secrets to all the world's problems.
She shoved him aside, and picked up his hockey stick lying at their feet.
"We've even got this!" she hissed. Not that she had ever used a hockey stick before, but, come on, how hard could it be to hit someone over the head with a blunt instrument? And anyway, such assholes were cowards. He'd probably make a run for it, underwear still around his ankles.
She felt his hand, a firm grip, on her elbow, but she pulled away from him, vaguely aware, as she did so, that he did not resist or follow after her. She marched over, hands tight around the hockey stick, eyes locked on the dense thicket ahead. She was back on the netball court, primed for action. As she drew closer to the hedge, she could see the branches and leaves quivering, as if the shrubbery were terrified of her approach. She was trying to stifle a giggle at the thought when a muffled whimper reminded her of the severity of the situation, reminded her that this wasn't something that only happened to Other People.
What if I had been the one dragged in there?
She paused mid-step, realising now that she was standing in the middle of the pathway, completely alone. Just a few metres away from her, was a man, a stranger who was potentially bigger, stronger. And not just any man, but one who was specifically intent on hurting women. She was just a girl. No one would blame her, she knew, if she put the hockey stick down, and walked away. They would understand.
And yet, it was precisely the thought that they would understand that infuriated her, this nebulous "they" that had no shape or form, unlike the man in the bushes, large, hairy, and sweaty, lying on top of a woman who was struggling beneath his crushing weight. The thought that it would be expected of her to step back, to let Jian Xiong take control—that was what burnt hot in her belly now. No, she would not be afraid. She forced the image of the man out from her mind, raised the hockey stick high, her whole body charged with adrenaline.
The perpetrator sprang to his feet, dry leaves and small branches filling the air in a spray of confetti. Disoriented, Su could only make out the indistinct silhouette of a man rushing past her, nearly knocking her over. She plunged into the vegetation, desperately hopeful. Inside, the woman, sweeping debris off her body, struggling to her feet. Su moved in closer, but the woman steadied herself, and held her hand up.
"No, go. Stop him."
Su bolted after the assailant. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jian Xiong by the bench with his phone to his ear. Good. She pursued the man round the playground, then behind the fitness station, gaining on him with every step. Each time he ran under a street lamp, she got another glimpse of his ample belly, his stubby legs. As they passed the foot reflexology path, she could hear him gasping for air, and knew that this was the time to strike. She braked, swung the hockey stick in a smooth arc, and thumped him hard across the back of his knees. The man tumbled clownishly to the pavement, his feet entangled around the stick.
She picked the pole up, and jammed the weapon into his throat, the curved edge against his Adam's apple.
"Fucker," she muttered, as she took in huge lungfuls of air, her chest expanding and contracting with great, steady force.
A flurry of footsteps behind her.
"Are you okay?" asked Jian Xiong, his hand rising to the small of her back as if to steady her, though she was standing ramrod stiff.
She nodded, eyes still fixed on the middle-aged man writhing at her feet. For the first time, she felt the urge to take someone's life, to lift the hockey stick in the air, and rain blows down upon this man till he was a bloody, pulpy mess.
"Su?" Jian Xiong's hand on her elbow again, but, this time, she allowed him to calm her down.
"The woman okay?"
"You got to him in time," he replied, prying the hockey stick from her, slowly, gently.
Only then did she allow her knees to buckle, and her body to collapse to the ground as if her muscles had become silly putty. Her heart unclenched, and then, large globs of tears streaming down her cheeks, although she did not know exactly why she was crying. More footsteps. A man in blue on her left, and another on her right. She turned back, and could make out a woman in the distance being helped by a police officer to a bench. It was the same bench Su and Jian Xiong had been sitting on just a few minutes ago, when all they had to worry about were their A-level examinations, which universities to apply to, and how to tell her parents she had a boyfriend, especially one who was Chinese.
She looked up to see him beaming down at her with pride.
"You were incredible," he said. "Absolutely incredible."
She still did not understand what all the fuss was about.
"Congratulations on your great act of bravery!" announced Mr Bandara from the rostrum.
Su enjoyed the attention, of course. When else was she going to receive a letter of commendation from the principal in front of the whole college, with the local media present to take photographs? The career guidance counsellor had even noted that this would look fantastic on her scholarship applications: remember to keep all the newspaper cuttings, and download the social media posts. But, surely, she was no braver than anyone else in the assembly hall. Most people just didn't get the opportunity to demonstrate this courage in their everyday lives. Even as she walked up the stage to receive, first, a handshake from her principal, and then her third hug that morning from a teary Ms Ling, the woman she had saved, she kept thinking: every single one of us here would have done the exact same thing in that situation.
Well, maybe not everyone. Most of the students, especially her classmates and the girls in her netball team, were whooping and cheering for her, but she noticed a small group towards the back, distracted, forming a ring around a student. The boys of the hockey team were ribbing Jian Xiong, alternating between striking heroic Wonder Woman poses, and pretending to hide behind imaginary cover, limp-wristed hands raised to the face in mock terror. He acted as if he didn't care, that he was in on the joke, but she could tell from his uneasy smile that he was more bothered by their teasing than he let on.
Once she got off the stage, she searched for him in the swarm of students. He's very good at hiding, you know, joked one of Jian Xiong's teammates to more laughter from the rest of the boys.
She pushed her way past them, and reached the corridor to see Jian Xiong storming off. He probably needed some time alone, but she could not let him go without at least saying something to him first.
He did not hear her. Or if he did, he pretended not to. Either way, he rounded a corner, and disappeared. She was furious with herself that an apology was the first thing that had come so naturally to her. She was just as mad with him. She knew that something in their relationship had fundamentally changed, and it was only a matter of time before he would break up with her.
Would it always be this way, she wondered.
"Excuse me!" Ms Ling's excited four-year-old son was barrelling towards her, his parents and younger sister trailing in his wake.
"Daniel! Leave her alone!" scolded Ms Ling, one hand reaching out to try and grab the little boy by the edge of his blue Iron Man T-shirt, Tony Stark blasting lava-red energy bolts from his gauntlets as he flew over a city skyline.
"No, it's okay," Su replied, grateful for the diversion. She caught Daniel before he ran into her, and lifted him off the ground in a single smooth motion.
"He insists on taking a picture, do you mind?" asked Ms Ling, holding her phone up, embarrassed. "He wants to print it out, and stick it on his wall."
"Yeah, next to Iron Man!" shouted Daniel, pumping his little fists in the air.
Daniel's sister, Charmaine, was hiding behind her father's legs, probably two or three years old, likely too young to understand exactly what all the commotion was about. She was wearing a bright pink Disney princess T-shirt: Cinderella, hair pulled up in a bun, pinched waist ludicrously tiny, with Prince Charming standing before her, taller, of course, in a military man's uniform, one hand on her waist, leading her as they danced.
"Why don't you both join in?" Su asked, looking at the boy's mother, and then, hopefully, at his sister. To her delight, the girl emerged from behind her father, and took tentative steps towards her.
Su put the boy down, and proudly crossed her arms diagonally in front of her chest to form the "W" symbol of the Amazon warrior, encouraging Charmaine to do the same. A tap on her shoulder from Ms Ling: she turned to see Daniel striking the same pose.
"Can you WhatsApp me the photo?" she asked, eyes shining, with a wide grin, as the boy's father stepped back to frame the shot on his phone. "I want to put this on my wall too."QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021